By R.K. Narayan
New York: Time Incorporated, 1966
245 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2009

The Financial Advisor was, for me, a failed novel which squandered a potentially great and even profound story. The author tells us the roots of the story in an introduction. Unfortunately the novel didn’t live up to the introduction.

Author R.K. Narayan explains that in British India the Brits established community banks to encourage a habit of thrift and to create a system of orderly loans. Until they did this most of the poor, which, of course, is most of the people, were constantly in debt to loan sharks. However, this banking system was bureaucratically cumbersome and ordinary working folks weren’t really much interested in thrift. The traditional loan-shark system was outrageously unfair to the poor, but it did give them some way to go beyond the hopelessness of their lives, if only for those special occasions of a family wedding or funeral.

Thus, with the seemingly well-intentioned community banks in place, but with the killing bureaucracy making them nearly useless, there sprang up a new group – the financial advisors. These were folks who just set up an “office” on the street under a shade tree. They were at least basically literate and knew a bit about how the banks worked. They also had stacks of the various forms people had to fill out for loans or other bank dealings. These folks would fill out the forms and guide the people along the path to get them through the bank’s systems. They often preferred to encourage their clients to just forget about the banks and all their forms and bureaucracy and to deal with the them, the financial advisors, who would lend money without much paper work. The novel was inspired by one of these street smart “financial advisors.”

This practice was not limited to India. I know this system well from my many visits to Haiti in the 1980s-to present. Wherever there is a bank there will be various “officials” on the street, sitting at a makeshift table on the sidewalk or under a tree. They are likely to have a rickety table, an old typewriter and some stacks of bank forms or other official documents. The customers stand in lines in the brutal heat as their various forms are filled out and the customer gets some instructions on how to deal with the next stages of their frightful visit to the bank or public office. These advisors are necessary go-betweens and have become necessary figures in many poor nations.

Author Narayan follows his basic story for about 1/3 the novel and does it well, giving us a semi-humorous, if a bit arrogant looking-down-the-nose at Margayya, the financial expert.

Unfortunately Narayan decides not to stick with that theme. It has so much potential not only for the uppity humor of laughing at Margayya, but to delve into a profound system which affects the lives of millions and millions of third world poor, but to reveal much about the frequent disconnect between government policies and the lives of the masses of the poor. Narayan heads in different directions and introduces a rather nutty self-described “sociologist” who has written a sort of sex manual reminiscent of what Masters and Johnson would do in later years in the U.S.

Then, in a third plot move Margayya’s young son is introduced and we follow a 20 year’s history of the tragic father / son relationship, which, while interesting in itself, gets in the way of the main line of the story.

The novel would have read much better as three separate short stories than as one not very well connected novel. The book just didn’t work for me as a unified whole. Nonetheless Narayan does give us lots of fascinating word pictures of life in post-war India, just before the struggle for Indian Independence. Yet, at the same time I felt a bit cheated. The author’s introduction was captivating and the first 40-50 pages were gripping, then it tailed off into the crazy sociologist and the recalcitrant son and I was quite disappointed we didn’t get to the depth of the “financial expert” system, but were given a rather cheap version of a ponzi scheme instead. It felt a bit like a bait and switch tactic.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett